Invasion of the Biofuels
So I guess the blush is off the biofuel rose. First there was the big rush to divert crop harvests from supermarkets to filling stations. Somehow nobody realized that would result in less food, higher grocery costs, and more hungry people. But it did and it has, and so that meant we needed a plan B, which has surfaced recently in the form of alternative crops.
These would be plants that aren’t grown for food and that don’t need good arable land to grow. Think, for example, switchgrass, which you can’t eat but you can grow in all kinds of places and soils that most food crops wouldn’t like anyway. Well, hey, everybody thought, great idea. Or not, as the Global Invasive Species Program, the Nature Conservancy and the International Union for Conservation of Nature said a week or two ago. They looked at a list of proposed non-food biofuel plants and got a bit alarmed because a lot of the species it named are also on the list of invasive species we don’t want to mess with. Oops.
Thus the so-called “second generation” of biofuel plants is as unappealing as the first generation was. And so the blush is off the biofuel rose. That’s good news.
First, it’s an excellent reminder that there’s no panacea to our energy/climate crunch, no single magic one-idea-fits-all solution that’s going to let us solve the problem in a jiffy so we can get back to our summer reading list and those veggie burgers we left on the grill. We spent a long time digging this hole. It’s going to take awhile to dig ourselves out of it.
But we can, and the lesson here is that biofuels will simply be one piece of the puzzle. They’re still a fuel source worth pursuing. (Not every plant on the list of suggestions is the botanical equivalent of Typhoid Mary.) Let’s just be real about their potential. And let’s not solve one problem by creating another.
Here’s your real recipe for a sustainable energy future: a little switchgrass ethanol here, a little vegetable oil biodiesel there, some solar, a bit of wind, a sprinkle of geothermal, some ocean wave power, etc. That’s the destination, and we won’t get there by continually rushing headlong into the next easy fix. All the recent “disappointing” biofuel news is just the course correction we need to begin.
And really, the mix-of-many-answers scenario is the more hopeful one. Because the more alternatives we have to choose from the more likely it is that we will all, in fact, choose one. Sure, we’ll have to work on multiple fronts, which is always harder and takes longer, but solving the energy/climate issue is hugely important, and it’s better not to pack all our eggs in one basket. A world based on biofuels would likely have as just many problems as a world based on hydrocarbons, albeit different ones.
So I’m more than happy to see biofuels go from the Next Big Thing to just another tool in our kit. Because that’s going to free a lot of energy to find the energy we really need.